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#150 Richard III at the Old Vic

July 11, 2011

From the playbill: but this isn

Two Shakespeares in a row! Check us out. And this one’s even more star-powered than the last one. It’s Sam Mendes’ take on Richard III with Kevin Spacey, perhaps in his last great role as Creative Director at the Old Vic. Which means it’s a pretty big deal. The stakes are high. And yup, it delivers, with a uncluttered, high-energy staging that’s utterly assured in every way.

Kevin Spacey was born to play Richard III. That much is obvious. But this isn’t quite the Richard III you might expect from him. His Richard of Gloucester isn’t a Kaiser Söze or a Lex Luthor, if that’s what you were thinking. Not some hyper-intelligent, scheming super-villain, with an expression usually only seen on something that can unhinge its jaw to eat an antelope.

No, Spacey’s Richard is a malformed spider, skittering over the bare boards of the stage with a braced leg and a stick, bent completely out of shape. A shallow, impulsive, endlessly energetic Richard in a world full of half-wits. Sometimes, it’s like he can’t believe his luck. He seems like a talented improvisor rather than just a subtle schemer, imposing himself on each situation, finding fulcrums, pushing at weakness, until he wins power; and then finds there are no more schmucks left to fool.

Mind you, he does get to go all Spacey Facey* in the scene in which he’s ‘implored’ to take power by his accomplice Buckingham. In this version, it’s in the form of a telecast, allowing Spacey to do some close-up cinema-style acting from a big screen, broadcast to his people. Watching his fake religious fervour, it’s impossible not to laugh at the trick he’s playing on the world (as the camera zooms in slowly, soap-opera style, on his counterfeit reluctance to rule. “Moi?” you expect him to say.)

This Richard is impatient. He shouts a lot, not because he’s angry but because he wants to keep things moving. You get the sense he’d be a champion swearer, too. He woos the Lady Anne over the body of her dead husband like he’s on a time limit for a high score. Later, when he says he’s frustrated that people keep harping on about that whole ‘death of the princes in the tower’ thing, you believe it. He seems a modern man in a modern play: thanks to Mendes, this staging seems contemporary without trying. There’s no distance between these acts and our present political reality. Because, at least here, Richard’s not a psychopath. He’s not an abberation. He’s somehow worse: just an intelligent, grasping and terrifyingly callous man in the right place at exactly the wrong time.

Mendes keeps the mise-en-scene** simple. The feel of this England is of a banana republic or, if you want to stretch a point only slightly, an unstable north African state. Unlike Ian McKellen’s famous interpretation, which mirrored the rise of Nazi Germany, there’s something small-scale and even petty about the scope of England’s power here. Tinpot – that’s the word. So many people have died for so little. This works well for a play that has such a strong whiff of pro-Tudor propaganda about it, because it means it doesn’t have to sell the myth of England to us. The avenging Richmond isn’t a nemesis here, so much as he is a simple force of history: the wheel turns, and Richard falls. The power of the setting comes from its relevance to the plot, rather than a wrenching away of its meaning to be clever or hip. It just makes sense to stage it this way, and let the megaton word-bombs do their worst.

If there’s anything to criticise here, it’s that the supporting cast seem just that – supporting. It’s why I’ve not felt the need to mention them yet. The performances are textbook flawless – selling impossible lines, delineating unrewarding characters, making Shakespeare’s twisted diction both natural and unfailingly clear – but they’re always victims, Richard-fodder. Despite their protests, they have a kind of cow-like acquiescence in their own demise. Exception has to be made for the always excellent Gemma Jones (AKA Bridget Jones’s mum in the films), whose homeless, half-mad ex-Queen is more witch than royalty, and who, it’s strongly implied, curses Richard to his ruin.

What’s the moral here? Bad people are no good? History improbably favours the virtuous? I think, in this staging, it’s a sort of parable of the need for vigilance. It’s a cast-iron guarantee that evil men will always happen to the world, and if nobody has time or inclination to stop them, they will destroy everything good and right. A powerful tonic to apathy, and a flawless performance.

*Spacey Facey is a thing, right? When he says something in a flat tone he doesn’t mean, and then looks all sly and sinister? Well, it is now.
** I know, I know ‘fuck off’.

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